Described by the Los Angeles Conservancy as “one of the most breathtaking Modern buildings ever designed,” and “a truly remarkable building that nearly defies description,” the Robert Frost Auditorium on the Culver City High School campus has undergone an extensive transformation, and will once again open its doors in September.
The Culver City Education Foundation (CCEF) will hold a grand opening celebration on Saturday evening, September 29, from 6 – 9:30 pm. The event includes a party catered by Akasha, performances by CCUSD students and special guests inside the Frost, and a short documentary film about the making of the Frost. Information and tickets available at www.ccef4schools.org . Proceeds benefit arts for all CCUSD students. Tickets are $50 for general admission seating, $100 or reserved seating. Both ticket prices include all of the party festivities and show. Go to www.ccef4schools.org for tickets.
The Frost was built in 1963 for the Culver City Unified School District (CCUSD). The architectural firm Flewelling and Moody designed it in the Organic Modern style with a ground-to-roof glass façade, brick exterior, and a distinctive reinforced concrete roof: it’s semi-circular and pleated, resembling a massive handheld fan when viewed from above.
The roof is anchored to the ground by a single curved concrete leg arcing over the front entrance. Historians believe that the gingko tree, a beautiful deciduous tree with distinguishing fan-shaped leaves, was the inspiration for the roof.
Futuristic for its time (the exterior was featured in Woody Allen’s 1973 sci-fi comedy Sleeper, and in the 1997 sci-fi thriller Gattaca) and continually heralded by architectural historians as one of the best-designed Modern structures, the building survived the 1994 Northridge Earthquake unscathed. But after continuous use since its opening, the facility has suffered from the ravages of time, and some ineffective and outdated internal systems.
“Our beloved auditorium was falling apart, and needed extensive upgrades,” says CCUSD Superintendent Leslie Lockhart. “ The arts programming at Culver City is renowned, particularly our AVPA (Academy of Visual and Performing Arts) program at the high school. Not only were the upgrades necessary from a structural and environmental standpoint, but we knew our students deserved a world-class performance space in which to practice their artistic crafts.”
Preserving the bold and distinctive exterior of the building was paramount in the design brief, executed by Culver City-based architects Hodgetts + Fung. “To maintain and celebrate the existing structure, each element of the design was subject to careful consideration,” say the lead renovation architects Hsinming Fung and Craig Hodgetts, “including challenges brought on by the unique structural constraints of the thin-shell structure, ineffective and unhealthful air handling system, lack of vertical space for a ‘black box’ theatre, and seriously degraded surfaces and systems throughout the venue.”
The ambitious renovation for the interior of the Frost included expanding the back-of-house spaces, adding a steel proscenium arch, handicapped access and new air conditioning, lighting and electrical systems.
The remarkably thin 4-inch signature roof dictated that anything new had to be supported from the floor, which obliged the architects to devise unique solutions in their mission. Added elements include a 9000-pound sweeping steel proscenium arch, 40 feet high at its pinnacle. The arch spans the stage in order to support the new theatrical catwalks and lighting equipment necessary to transform the Frost from an auditorium to a full-fledged performing arts facility. Illuminated with multi-colored colored lights, the arch evokes the rainbow in The Wizard of Oz, which was filmed at MGM in Culver City in the 1930s.
Other prominent design features include eight lightweight acoustic “sails” which double to silently circulate conditioned air to seating areas. Together, they act to create a more intimate experience for the performers and the audience, and enable the Frost to host a wide range of events from theatre of the spoken word to rock concerts. With 1200 seats, it is one of the largest theatre venues on the west side of Los Angeles, and is available for rent by outside organizations.
Hodgetts, whose firm designed the new Hollywood Bowl bandshell in 2004, still marvels at the building. “ The reigning and most elite architectural style of the 60s was a sleek black box, a la Mies van der Rohe. So when Culver City leadership adopted this very curvaceous, very sensuous design, it was way outside of the norm. They did something that had never been done, and that took vision and courage.”
Fung believes that Flewelling and Moody were influenced by the Spanish-Mexican architect Felix Candela, who used the thin shell concrete structure and designed some of the most famous buildings of the early 60s. “My assumption is that this thin shell construction, which was super efficient and inexpensive, allowed them to build this huge facility at a moderate cost, something the school district most likely appreciated given its modest budget. The architects also had an odd shaped lot to contend with, which may also have contributed to the unusual design.”
“Culver City has a robust music and performing arts program for K-12th grade, so students begin performing in the Frost early in their academic careers,” adds Superintendent Lockhart. “In high school, our AVPA (Academy of Visual and Performing Arts) program is award winning and nationally known. Our students are incredibly talented and each year produce, create and perform amazing productions. We now have a top-notch facility that will appropriately showcase their phenomenal talent. We are eager for performers and audiences from all over Los Angeles to enjoy this spectacular venue.”
Culver City Mayor Thomas Small, himself an expert on historic preservation architecture, notes the Frost’s historic and architectural prominence. Referring to it as “ The Chemosphere of auditoriums,” Small compares it to 60s architect John Lautner ’s noted modernist house in the Hollywood Hills. “With its folded plate roof, this is a work of internationally important architecture, as important as modernist style buildings in Rome and Mexico City,” says Small. “It’s always been a stealth treasure in Culver City. With a new, larger stage, enhanced performance qualities, and upgraded back-of-the-house facilities, the Frost Auditorium will be a fully functioning theatre within its extraordinary concrete shell. It’s ready for its close-up, and will continue to be a landmark for Culver City.”